The Reeler


April 18, 2007

The Daley Grind

Filmmaker Brougher on Tamblyn, Swinton and the tough issues guiding Stephanie Daley

Amber Tamblyn as the title character in Stephanie Daley, opening Friday in New York (Photos: Regent Releasing)

The Sunday Times was still out a day later at the publicist's office, the Arts and Leisure section flopping over the top of the stack on the table in the dining room. The last reader left it overturned, casually and perhaps not-so-casually, with the headline below the fold exploding at passers by: "A Director, and Mother, Confronts Infanticide."

"My husband was really funny about it," said Hilary Brougher, the director, and mother, in question, whose own seated portrait was laid out beneath the headline. " 'Thank God that wasn't on the front page!' In Arts and Leisure, it's still a little sensationalistic, but it's a safe and interesting headline. Catchy."

Indeed, it's all of those things, and not just a little misleading either. Brougher's latest film, Stephanie Daley (opening Friday in New York), confronts infanticide only briefly (and yes, indelibly) as one of infinite outcomes of pregnancy -- the more dynamic phenomenon whose fear, exhilaration and anticipation grip not just mothers, but also fathers, partners, friends, colleagues and, when things get especially dramatic, entire communities. Think quintuplets, or the first baby born in any hospital on New Year's Day. Or the stillborn, or the secret, the grave tandem whose overlap supplies Stephanie Daley's narrative context.

Not that that makes it a ripped-from-the-headlines movie, as Brougher is careful to point out. Rather, what a few pundits off-handedly dismissed following its Sundance '06 premiere as a glorified Lifetime melodrama or a feature-length Law & Order episode is a riveting, genuinely fresh commentary on the culture of maternity. The film's eponymous teenager (a stunning Amber Tamblyn), faced with charges of killing her prematurely born infant in a bathroom stall, attends psychological competency meetings with the district attorney's go-to shrink, Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton). Lydie struggles with both biology and past tragedy in the late stages of her own pregnancy; her relationships with her husband (Timothy Hutton), his co-worker Frank (Denis O'Hare) and a surfeit of cooing pals are fraught with varying levels of denial -- the coin of the realm in both women's turbulent quests for some truth about their roles as mothers.

"The fact that they're both going through a similar rite of passage and that they can recognize something of their own experience in each other is really important -- for them to not feel alone," Brougher told The Reeler. "They have to be essential to each other. They can't just have the same things happening to themselves in separate worlds -- they have to question and answer each other in a way that they share this common moment in the end."

Filmmaker Hilary Brougher, photographed in February by her 5-year-old daughter

The important thing about Stephanie Daley's "common moment," however, is its honesty; the film's threads of loathing, infidelity, abandonment and uncertainty fray an otherwise convenient resolution. For Stephanie, bound to the small-town church/school/marching band routine expected of her, the twin lures of sexuality and power come to define womanhood. When both betray her, she passes along the cost of her resentment to an overweight classmate, an easy target to whom Stephanie eventually comes around in a maternal, if condescending, act of comfort. The girl rejects her, but the viewer's sympathies are more complex. "I just wish people would stop smiling at me," Lydie says at one point, further challenging pregnancy's enduring, shatterproof vulnerability in cinema. Her ongoing flirtation with Frank emphasizes the breach in her marriage, possibly of her own making.

The fathers in Stephanie Daley -- a teenage predator; an aloof borderline alcoholic; and an ambitious, haunted architect -- yield their own parallel universe of contradictions and mysteries. "The journeys that fathers or partners take with the person who's carrying their child?" said Brougher, herself the mother of twins. "That's a really intense place, and they really have to grapple with the same set of hopes and fears -- about their identity being replaced, about losing control, about not being able to fix the outcome."

In particular, as Lydie's husband Paul, Hutton evokes a visceral helplessness anchored in his character's last go-around as father-to-be, which ended in a stillborn daughter and an even more devastating denouement. The first-act facility of their relationship is wholly counterfeit; they each know something damning about themselves and the other, but nobody is telling -- because of the baby. "They're forced into the position of the spectator and the supporter, and it's intense and interesting for men," Brougher told me. "I wish there was more room in the movie to even get into it more."

What the filmmaker offers in the meantime is equal parts harrowing and humane. Tamblyn's episode in the ski lodge restroom where she gives birth -- thus earning her the nom de media "The Ski Mom" -- is four minutes of silent, near-bloodless mayhem that reportedly caused fainting spells among at least a few of its festival viewers; legend aside, it's a more authentic, audacious image of suffering than you'll find in most ratings-challenged horror films. Paired with Swinton, each actress' presence occupies the others' stories -- Stephanie's told in flashback, Lydie's in the present. They only share a handful of scenes, but their transposition is a clever technical approach that Brougher crafted over years of rewriting.

"They're really funny," she said of observing the relationship between her stars, who didn't have the benefit of rehearsals but rather developed their characters through more straightforward scene analyses. "Tilda is a real enabler; she not only does really interesting stuff, but when she's working with another actor, she just gives them so much. And she gives it to me, too. That's the phenomenal thing; I've never known someone could be quite so generous. They trusted each other. I hope they trusted me; I know they didn't distrust me. That was my big job."

And as for the extremes -- infanticide, hyperbole, melodrama -- Brougher shrugged. An open mind can see it any number of ways; she's glad to let it go. "I love that you walk in, look at a movie and you're immediately meditating," she said. "You're just looking at this frame. At some point, maybe you get bored, but before you get bored, you're really ready to see anything. ... That scene with Amber, yes, people pass out. But it's because of what people are bringing to it. That's the trick -- it's not all me. I don't have to feel so responsible."

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